These poems can’t make history vanish, but they can contend against it with the force of a restorative imagination ... At the center of many of these poems is the black queer body as it moves through a range of contemporary American spaces, some comparatively safe, many potentially lethal. The mind that tracks it—imagining its outcomes, adjusting to its setbacks, processing its sudden drives and imperatives—is a wild and unpredictable instrument. In an extraordinary poem about sex and death, 'strange dowry,' Smith finds themselves in a strobe-lit bar, checked out by potential lovers...Spontaneity is the great virtue of this work, but calculation is a survival skill. The open-endedness of 'strange dowry' is matched, in this book, by a grim determinism. In 'it won’t be a bullet,' Smith’s advantages over 'the kind of black man who dies on the news' are offset by H.I.V., which targets black men by a different standard of intention ... In this moving, unsettling work, the question is not simply one of craft. It’s about how the body and its authority can be manifested in writing, with only the spindly trace of letters to stand in for it ... it forces you, the reader, to say aloud, to embody, the words, while leaving a gap for the inevitable differences of race or gender identity, of illness and health, that might sometimes seem unbridgeable. They might be unbridgeable; but they are not unimaginable.
Smith, a performance poet who has won the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry, among other honors, takes aim at the racism and inequities in America that make many black people fear for their safety on a daily basis. Smith, who identifies with neither gender, also writes about sex, desire and the HIV diagnosis that resulted after one lover came over '& then he left/but he stayed.' As this stunning collection unfolds, the speaker weaves together personal sickness with societal ills, wondering 'just how/ will I survive the little/ cops running inside/ my veins.' These pieces pulse with the rhythms and assertiveness one expects from poetry slams. They also demand that people understand why the speaker wants to leave Earth 'to find a land where my kin can be safe.'
Though 'summer, somewhere' is about the afterlife, the rest of Don’t Call Us Dead is about life and death on earth. Again, the central figure is the body: the black body, the queer body, the safe body, the sick body, the dead body. These poems show us that there are things other than violence that kill ... What is so extraordinary about this collection is its lyricism, its humanity, and its urgency ... The brave nature of these poems is not only in calling out a country for its lack of empathy, but also in the very visceral way that sex, disease, and death are used to confront the reader ...an historical commentary, a scientific document, a personal narrative, and a formal poetics ... Smith uses every tool of craft at a poet’s disposal to deliver powerful, urgent, deliberate, crucial poems. Don’t miss this book.